Carolina Public Press and 103.3 Asheville-FM hosted a public forum for City Council candidates on October 13, 2020.
Among the main topics at the virtual event were the Asheville Police Department’s checkered history of racial conflicts, disparities in law enforcement, and inability to retain leadership. The order in which questions were asked to respond was randomly chosen by the moderator.
How do we ensure public safety and keep good leaders in place?
Sage Turner, finance and project manager for the French Broad Food Coop and a longtime consultant and community volunteer (who is White), remarked that the underlying question is “how to take care of the community. We look to police for every solution to every problem, and that’s unfair to the citizens and to the police. When we see folks who need addiction assistance, are in a housing crisis, or in poverty, it doesn’t need to be an armed police officer coming in. There are all sorts of programs in place to help individuals who are specialists in those fields; they’re the ones we should call on for those needs.”
She also noted the national cultural shift that has opened the door to new sources of training, and to thinking about the entire structure of public safety in new ways.
Candidate Sandra Kilgore is a Black Asheville native who returned to her hometown and owns a real estate business. While not disagreeing with Turner, she emphasized her belief that “we need to vet our policemen better—screen them better. Like any department, our training program should help police work better in the community. [Racial issues] are something we’ve been struggling with for hundreds of years,” she said, “All that [minority communities] seek is equal rights. We seek equal healthcare, equal opportunity, equal schooling.”
On the leadership question, she said, “I have met with [recently hired] Chief [David] Zack. He has some wonderful programs; he’s focusing on working on black-on-black crime; he is interested in meeting with the community, where they are. And to me it makes sense to keep the new chief in place to see how his ideas, and which of them, work.”
Keith Young, one of three African Americans currently on City Council, who is running for reelection, attempted to broaden the discussion. “I think we always feel we have to bring the conversation back to where folks can be acutely aware of why, in this moment, we have issues that affect all our citizens that really are systemic in nature.”
He noted that numerous possible solutions are being brought to the table, in reaction to the wide range of responsibilities given to police rather than to people more suited to undertake them. “The bottom line,” he said, is that “police shouldn’t be called to do certain tasks. However, we have to look at the infrastructure that’s currently in place if there are things we’re pulling away from police.”
Like Kilgore, Young said he supports what the new chief is trying to do on different levels. As a councilman, he said, he is looking at the department’s budget. “I’m affected as a Black man. How do you judge? Are the disparities dropping? Is the community open to how the police are changing?”
Candidate Rich Lee, a White investment adviser who lives in Oakley, said he was told by an unnamed person who works in the public health field that “as much as half of police activity centers around homelessness, chronic poverty, and addiction. This person suggested that the cost and availability of housing; job training; and connecting people with housing, addiction treatment, and jobs would actually be lower than the costs of arresting, trying, and jailing people… Any approach that focuses on armed law enforcement carries a greater risk of escalation and violence than most treatment programs, social services, and legal aid.”
“We should free up police resources for community work, like Denver’s Star program, or Portland’s Cahoots,” he said, referring to those cities’ similar approach to investing in public safety. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.” He said he would build on programs that rethink and limit the role of police in favor of providing services that are more appropriate.
Kim Roney, a West Asheville piano teacher who also works in the service industry, emphasized the need for a more comprehensive look at the community to determine all its needs.
“This is not a new conversation,” said Roney, who is White. “City Hall has been dragging their feet on basic reforms that the people have long requested. In 2017 many neighbors started getting together asking for million dollars for the people, for public needs, public safety. We do violence to the planet in the same way we do violence to each other; it’s important to get right relationship with each other. We need to reimagine public safety and end policing as we know it.”
She also supported a divestment of 50% of the police budget to be redirected into investment in communities. Referring to the recent resignation of the city’s Equity and Inclusion Manager, Roney added, “When I see Kimberly Archie leave, we take a step back not forward. So we have to ask, what is keeping us safe, not keeping us safe? Access to housing, to food? We may not have to start from scratch. Needle exchange, diversion programs, reentry programs… We have to divest so we can invest.”
Another question under discussion was how the community should respond to the 2018 takeover of Mission Hospital by HCA, a for-profit company based in Tennessee, which has generated numerous complaints from across western North Carolina about diminished services, higher costs, and closing of facilities. Nurses there voted overwhelmingly this summer to form an affiliate of the National Nurses Union. Candidates were asked what role the city should play during this transition to private, for-profit healthcare.
Young, who was on Council at the time of the takeover, pointed out that Asheville is limited in what it can do to oversee the practices of a private business. But several candidates highlighted the value of the city’s elected officials’ public role in calling attention to shortcomings and demanding continuing, stronger oversight at the state level.
Lee said, “We have to be the megaphone. Most people can’t call [NC Attorney General] Josh Stein. City Council should carry residents’ concerns to the state, to the federal government; we have to be the conduit for public concerns. Because of the way Mission was allowed to grow and take over many small medical group practices, it is close to becoming a monopoly. To the extent the city can support alternatives and competition, we can leverage our influence.”
His view was echoed by others on the panel. Roney agreed that, “We can’t do legislative changes, but we can build coalitions across the state to oppose or support legislation. Leverage our voices; fight for Asheville in Raleigh. We are the ninth-fastest-growing city in the state, and we can work in coalition with cities across North Carolina, like Wilmington and others.”
Roney added that “One thing Council can do is ensure that additional property taxes paid by HCA are not placed into the city’s General Fund but go into community needs, like One Buncombe.”
Turner, too, suggested that tax revenues be closely directed. Among the needs she highlighted was the growth of population in the 75-and-older demographic, suggesting that taxes could be targeted for elder healthcare, among other services.
She also said, “HCA has a history of fighting valuation. We have to fight back; revalue their properties to make sure they’re paying the appropriate amounts. We can’t do a lot about a private company, but we can insist on transparency about changes and advocate for improvement. And we should support the nurses union, and turn to them for support in our efforts,” she said.
Kilgore emphasized that HCA, as a for-profit enterprise, is concerned primarily with making money. “What they care about is their profit; we can force HCA to come to the table by hitting them where it hurts.”
She added, “We can do more to hold them accountable: we can hold conversations with the community, do surveys about needs and shortcomings, and other things to make the community aware of how they’re slipping in giving good care. With the union, hopefully when the nursing staff negotiates a decent contract, that will help them but also the people in community.”
Asheville City School Board
Asheville schools have some of the highest funding in the state, and also the highest racial disparities in education outcomes and disciplinary measures applied. The candidates were asked if they would support an elected city school board to increase accountability.
All but Young agreed that it is an idea whose time has come, though some were more hesitant than others. Rich Lee, with children in elementary school, said, “Electing a school board is not a panacea. But the school administration is out of step with the needs of Asheville parents and students. So it’s time to change.”
Roney also supports the change, reminding listeners that in the future, the legislature could again establish districts for the City’s elected officials. “We could have two-and-a-half districts [with unequal representation] appointing people to run the schools.”
Turner reiterated that Asheville schools have the state’s highest education gap and school-to-prison pipeline. She also pointed out that funding is not the problem, but that families with no internet at home, or poor connectivity, and lifestyle issues, all affect children’s achievement—or lack of it. “An elected school board is not the only fix, but there does need to be direct accountability. We could return to holding regular joint meetings between the school board and City Council so we’d get regular updates.”
Kilgore is a strong proponent of an elected school board. “What we as council candidates have to go through and be vetted by the public, that would help with choosing the board. An elected board would have to address issues of what classes [cover], subject matter that’s not relevant, developing more and better relationships between teachers and parents, and teachers and students. It all comes down to better oversight and holding people to account.”
Young was less enthusiastic than others about giving up City Council’s power to appoint the board members. However, he did recognize the problems the schools face. “Who is the school system failing? Not White kids, but Black kids. Previous iterations of the system did not alleviate the problems, so how does an elected school board alleviate the problem?”
Polls are open now
Early voting for Asheville City Council candidates, along with all other elected officials, opened October 15, 2020 and will continue through Saturday, October 31, at noon. Residents may also vote absentee, returning completed ballots in person or by mail to the Buncombe County Board of Elections at 77 Choctaw Street in Asheville. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.